I'm typing the following story seated in a bog standard chair made of wood and plastic, but when I met Eben Bayer a few hours ago I was seated in a chair made out of mushrooms. Turns out it was one of his.
"First off, I think it's phenomenal that there's a mushroom beat," Bayer joked in the basement of Parsons School of Design in New York City, after I told him that I was attending the Biofabricate biology and design conference to report on mushrooms. "We've come a long way."
Bayer is the CEO of Ecovative, a firm based just outside Albany that uses natural materials like hemp and mycelium—the vegetative part of fungi—to design and produce products like wall insulation, packing materials, and furniture like that chair I was sitting on. These products, Bayer was keen to stress, can actually be bought today: That chair is called the Stack Stool and can be yours for $99, while a simple desk organizer can be had for $12. And if you're hard at work constructing your home YouTube or Twitch production studio, a panel of Ecovative's sound-dampening tiles will set you back $22. The holidays are just around the corner, after all.
And because mushrooms are renewable and don't harm the environment, they could just be one of the key composite materials of the future.
"One of the reasons I think biomaterials are so important is because everything we [Ecovative] grow is bio-compatible with the planet," said Bayer. "No matter where it ends up, it doesn't give off any toxins during its life. People care about that."
Ecovative isn't the only company in what can be described as the "mushroom space" that made an impression at Biofabricate. Maurizio Montalti, of Mycoplast, brought a distinct Italian flair to the proceedings in a talk on the potential societal benefits of fungi-based production materials (including their promise for building space colonies), while Ginger Kreig Dosier's bioMASON spoke of her company's mission to replace as much of the world's traditional concrete with bricks made out of fungi. Phil Ross, of Mycoworks, walked through his vision of using mushrooms to create leather that can then be turned into things like handbags—which is almost as cool as a surfboard made out of mushrooms.
But handbags and bricks aren't the endgame here. Ecovative's Bayer believes mushroom-based materials will soon be found in places like the automotive industry—mushroom-based leather seats, anyone?—and in the particle board inside your home. Exciting stuff, and if folks like Bayer and Ross get their way, it'll be totally normal if the next time you stroll into Home Depot or Ikea you walk out with an entire dining room set created out of fungi.
"Let's make products that people can actually experience and buy that are beautiful," said Bayer. "Our goal is to make an impact on the world, but making it so that consumers can experience this too will only help us."